US questions thoroughness of Iraqi arms dossier

DISPUTE: Mustard gas shells are among the items Washington says are unaccounted for in Iraq's submission of its weapons, leaving the president some tough decisions

AP AND REUTERS , WASHINGTON AND BAGHDAD

Sat, Dec 14, 2002 - Page 1

Iraq's 12,000-page weapons declaration does not account for a number of missing chemical and biological weapons and fails to explain purchases US intelligence believes are related to President Saddam Hussein's nuclear program, US officials said.

Iraq used the lengthy document to support its contention -- disputed by the US -- that Saddam's regime possesses none of these weapons of mass destruction, the officials said late Thursday.

The tentative US conclusion that the report is lacking sets the stage for a critical set of decisions by President George W. Bush, who views the report as Saddam's last chance to come clean, officials said.

Bush's options include providing US intelligence on suspected weapons programs to UN inspectors or helping the world body attempt to prove that Saddam is lying, which was required under a US-backed UN resolution that also forced inspectors back into Iraq after a four-year lapse, the officials said, speaking only on condition of anonymity

Bush could also simply seek more information from Iraq, a route White House officials said earlier Thursday the president would not take.

After a more thorough review of the declaration, the president also could declare that Saddam was in "material breach" of the resolution, and that war was required to disarm him, officials said.

The latter step, favored by hard-liners in the administration, likely would be condemned by US allies who want proof that Saddam is a threat.

Under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, false statements or omissions in the declaration -- coupled with a failure to comply with inspections -- would be a "material breach" of Iraq's obligations. Newly admitted weapons inspectors have not publicly accused Iraq of obstructing their efforts.

Nevertheless, UN experts called in senior UN and Iraqi officials to sort out a snag during an inspection of a disease control center in Baghdad yesterday.

"This is a newly declared site and we want to clarify the tagging procedure, that is all," said senior weapons inspector Miroslav Gregoric.

It was the first time in the latest round of UN weapons inspections that a problem on the ground was known to have prompted senior officials to use their hotline.

General Hussam Mohammed Amin, the chief Iraqi official liaising with the inspectors, was swiftly on the scene. He also said the tagging of equipment had needed clarification.

The Iraqi report largely rehashes old declarations and reports and contains little new information, officials said. It has done nothing to alter the US belief that Iraq po-ssesses chemical and biological weapons and is pursuing nuclear weapons, officials said.

The report, being analyzed at the CIA and elsewhere, does not account for quantities of chemical and biological agents that were missing when UN inspectors were expelled from Iraq in 1998, officials said.

Hundreds of mustard gas shells, for example, remain unaccounted for, officials said.